February 27, 2015; CNN

Mariam Veiszadeh is an Australian lawyer and founder of the Islamophobia Register Australia, which serves as an online venue for “incidents of Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim sentiments to be reported, recorded and analyzed.” Since the time Veiszadeh tweeted about an “If you don’t love it, leave” t-shirt on sale at Woolworth’s, she has been barraged with online invective, some messages threatening bodily harm and death.


A Muslim, Veiszadeh could add the nasty social media abuse she receives to the tally of Islamophobia incidents. “They abuse me because I have a scarf on my head and because I’m a Muslim,” Veiszadeh told CNN. “If their stated objective is to silence me, then my stated objective is to do the exact opposite.” A hashtagged #IStandWith Mariam campaign has emerged to counter the hate messages she gets.

Twitter is taking steps to tamp down some of the trolling that has become part of social media life. The company is improving and expanding its process for Twitter users to report abuse and is using telephone numbers to track abusive trolls, who typically set up new accounts after Twitter closes their old ones. To its credit, Twitter is also enhancing its approach to “so-called ‘bystander reports’ where someone that witnesses abuse on the platform—as opposed to the person who’s the subject of the abuse—brings banned behavior to the attention of Twitter.”

While Twitter and Facebook may try to rein in trolls, the challenge for targets of trolls comes in dealing with the harassment themselves. Australian journalist Ginger Gorman recently posted an interview with two committed and active trolls, discussing their admitted motivations to cause pain and distress, and cited Canadian researcher Del Paulhus, who said the Internet gives trolls “the opportunity to be anonymous and hurt people that can’t hurt you back.”

In some cases, however, like the trolling of Mariam Veiszadeh, some of it is organized, linked to groups that are trying to antagonize and intimidate people because they don’t like their message or politics. They are often quite skilled in circumnavigating whatever barriers Twitter, Facebook, or online journals put in their way. What, then, ought to be done in response, not just to malevolent individuals posting vile stuff on the Internet, but to organized groups of trolls?

“Being harassed on the Internet is such a normal, common part of my life that I’m always surprised when other people find it surprising,” writes Lindy West, the feminist writer whom many people hear on NPR’s This American Life. “People who don’t spend much time on the internet are invariably shocked to discover the barbarism—the eager abandonment of the social contract—that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs.”

West raises the question of whether it is worthwhile to “feed the trolls” or just ignore them:

“Over and over, those of us who work on the Internet are told, ‘Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t talk back. It’s what they want.’ But is that true? Does ignoring trolls actually stop trolling? Can somebody show me concrete numbers on that? Anecdotally, I’ve ignored far more trolls than I’ve ‘fed,’ and my inbox hasn’t become any quieter. When I speak my mind and receive a howling hurricane of abuse in return, it doesn’t feel like a plea for my attention—it feels like a demand for my silence.”

It certainly is pretty obvious that debating trolls online is rarely if ever going to convince them to change their minds, especially if they are on social media to get their kicks from narcissism and sadism, as a study by Paulhus suggests. Some people suggest that the best strategy is to “out” the trollers by investigating who they are and publishing that information or providing it to their employers. Such “doxing” has been a strategy increasingly used by people combatting online racism. The problem, however, is that some people on the internet have used doxing as “a form of revenge or to embarrass someone,” much more personal than political, leading Twitter to add doxing as a form of abuse it wants to curtail, even including a “report dox” option for users reporting abuse.

A study by two professors of communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison demonstrates that “uncivil comments”—epithets, vulgarity, name-calling—serve to diminish, if not shut down, our ability to think. It is impossible to imagine progress when discourse is conducted through insults and vulgarity—or if there is no discourse at all.

Somehow, it all boils down to civility in public discourse—or the lack of it. Or perhaps, because the venues for public discourse are so few, it may not really matter much just how vile and abusive trolls might be. We read recently an article by Rachel Zoll, the religion writer for the Associated Press, about the continuing push from the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement for universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel. According to Zoll, “Pro-Israel students at some campuses have decided to no longer attend divestment hearings, saying their presence gives the proceedings an unwarranted legitimacy.” She also said, “Palestinian advocates generally will not engage in dialogue or joint public events with pro-Israel students, calling such interactions ‘faithwashing’ meant to weaken the movement.” That sort of says it all—both sides are unwilling to discuss issues with people who don’t agree for fear that they will be providing their opponents credibility and legitimacy simply by engaging them.

If nonprofits believe in the democratic process, they should also believe in civil discourse, which is the polar opposite of the “entertainment” pursued by Internet trolls. Believing in discourse, we join the #IStandWithMariam campaign and admire Mariam Veiszadeh and all the people like her who find themselves on the receiving end of Internet commentary meant to intimidate them into dropping their activism.—Rick Cohen: